NFU intentions survey shows shrinking beef and sheep sectors

Beef and sheep farmers have blamed soaring input costs and concern over post-Brexit support as they plan drastic cutbacks in livestock numbers, a survey has revealed.

More than 1,000 English and Welsh farm businesses took part in the NFU and NFU Cymru Livestock Production Intentions survey, which canvassed farmers last autumn.

Overall, 40% of cattle keepers suggested they would reduce herd sizes in the next 12 months by almost 10%. Among sheep farmers, 36% intended to cut flocks by about 6%.

The survey revealed that high energy and feed prices were the top concerns (mentioned by 92% and 82% of respondents, respectively), followed by cuts to BPS payments (79%) and sky-high fertiliser prices (78%).

Across the two sectors, almost 90% made forage in 2022, but within that group 80% had made the same volume or less, with poor growing conditions and high fertiliser costs cited as the main drivers for the reduction.

For this year, 55% said they would buy less feed and 77% would buy less fertiliser, raising concerns at the NFU over future production performance.

‘Beyond comprehension’

NFU livestock board chairman Richard Findlay said input costs had reached levels “beyond anybody’s comprehension”.

Combined with uncertainty over government backing and control, the bleak outlook had taken a toll on confidence, he added.

Poor growing conditions and large-scale imports of cut-price, frozen New Zealand lamb had added to the downturn, Mr Findlay said.

“The government is badly behind schedule with post-Brexit support plans and this confidence survey should set alarm bells ringing at Defra,” he warned.

In the uplands particularly, options under the Sustainable Farming Incentive were still “virtually non-existent” and it was impossible to make plans, Mr Findlay said.

New markets

John Royle, the NFU’s chief livestock adviser, also urged the government to step up progress on post-Brexit policy and to help develop new markets. “The lack of policy is holding back the livestock sector’s ambitions to meet production and net-zero targets,” he said.

The upcoming Clean Air Act would require huge investment on farms, but without accessible funding schemes, farmers would not be able to afford the changes required.

Meanwhile, Brexit trade deals had opened the door to cheaper, less welfare-friendly imports with higher carbon footprints.

The livestock sector needed solid support to help it promote its advantages in established markets, Mr Royle insisted, as well as more work to develop markets abroad.

The lack of confidence has also hit longer-term investment plans, the survey shows.

Two out of five livestock producers said they planned to make no capital investments over the next three years.

And even with grant schemes, only 20% said they could afford to invest in slurry storage improvements to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Without government funding, this proportion fell dramatically to just 5%.

Scots face uncertainty

Farmers have pointed to uncertainty over the Scottish government’s future agricultural policy as the greatest threat to their business, according to a separate intentions survey by NFU Scotland (NFUS).

A first analysis of the 555 responses showed that almost two-thirds identified future agricultural policy as the most significant threat.

As an immediate response, the union is calling on the Scottish government to bring forward much-needed detail on new policy measures that farmers and crofters will have to adopt from 2026.

Volatile market prices and the unprecedented spike in fertiliser, fuel, feed and utilities costs scored highly when respondents were asked to identify what would have an impact on their business in the coming year.

Availability of labour also remains a key concern for some, while wider land use policy, consumer attitudes, biosecurity and livestock disease also scored highly in terms of risk.

NFUS president Martin Kennedy said: “Increasing uncertainty is already eroding confidence – causing too many to question their futures which, ultimately, threatens Scotland’s food security, together with its environmental integrity and economic prosperity.”